In a nutshell, this project involves DNA analysis of Roman skeletons to learn more about immigrants in the Empire. Want more information? Read on!

Why Romans? The Roman Empire has been studied for centuries through the histories of Livy and poetry of Vergil, through tombstones that proclaim a person’s name and all-too-early age at death, through mausoleums chock full of artifacts. Only recently have anthropologists started studying the actual skeletons of ancient Romans, though, in an attempt to learn about the people who were never mentioned in the written record, who couldn’t afford to commemorate their relatives’ deaths, who didn’t have jewelry and fancy pottery to bury with the deceased. These people were quite literally Rome’s 99% – the lower-classes and slaves who held only a fraction of a percent of the wealth of the upper class. Our knowledge of the ancient Romans is based almost entirely on the writings of educated, wealthy, elite men. It’s time to change our approach to Roman history by combining skeletal data on age, sex, height, disease, and diet of the lower classes with historical records, art, and artifacts.

What do skeletons tell us? At a basic level, each skeleton reveals key information about the person it used to belong to: whether the person was male or female, how tall he or she was, what age the person died at, and long-term diseases the person suffered from. This information can be gleaned from a skeleton simply by looking at it. But our bones and teeth hold additional information about the things we ate during our lives and the places we’ve lived. This information, though, has to be obtained through chemical analysis of isotopes and DNA. Each one of our physical bodies is formed by the food we eat, the activities we engage in, the geographies we have passed through, and the important milestones in our lives.

What have you already learned through Roman bioarchaeology? Studying the skeletons of the other 99% of the Imperial population has started to give me new information about under-represented groups in Rome, like migrants, women, children, and slaves. My previous research project involved analyzing over two hundred skeletons from two lower-class Imperial-period cemeteries in ancient Rome. I used carbon and nitrogen isotope analysis to learn that most Romans were eating a diet made up of wheat, barley, and some aquatic resources, but that no one was eating exactly the same things. I also used strontium and oxygen isotope analysis to learn that about one-third of the people whose bones I studied immigrated to Rome after childhood. Surprisingly, the immigrants had a similar quality of life as the locals: they ate similar food, suffered from similar diseases, and died at similar ages.

What’s this new project about? Isotope analysis showed me that one-third of the people were immigrants to Rome, but it couldn’t tell me where people were from. Neither could archaeological evidence, since these people were of the lowest social class (many were likely slaves) and were not buried with grave goods. For this project, I will do ancient DNA analysis to learn more about geographical origins and heritage. I’m excited to reveal the genetic background of these people using methods that have seldom been applied to skeletons from Rome.